Putting on "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Tiburon sounded like a rockin' idea to Karen Roekard.
For some 20 years at art theaters all over the country, devotees have flocked to weekly midnight screenings of "Rocky Horror," garbed as characters from the movie. While the show appears on the screen, the costumed fans perform a pantomime of the movie. Those in their seats are also part of the act, roaring with laughter, chanting the movie's dialogue aloud and even tossing slices of toast and other foreign objects into the air. Roekard thought these events were great fun.
But it didn't seem appropriate to follow havdallah services with a film about a cannibalistic, bisexual, transvestite mad scientist who dallies with virtually everyone who comes to his house.
So instead, with those madcap midnight screenings firmly in mind, Roekard — who is Koret Synagogue Initiative program director at Kol Shofar — combined the craziness of the cult film with "Fiddler on the Roof."
The result: the synagogue's first annual "Tevye Horah Picture Show," which is slated to return before Purim next year.
Baby-boomers grew up with "Fiddler" and know the songs on its soundtrack, Roekard pointed out as she was getting ready for the program to begin.
"But it's very rare that you get to sing along, dance along, play along, dress along" with screenings of the film, she said.
In the mode of "Rocky Horror," she gathered props to invite audience participation. Anticipating a candlelighting scene, she had candles on hand. For the movie's wedding scene, she provided a chuppah.
For Tevye's dream sequence, she had platters to represent tombstones, with a piece of paper taped to the back of each one telling the audience member who carries it what to do and when to do it.
This notation concluded with the all-important instruction not to block the movie screen.
The sanctuary itself was decorated to resemble a shtetl. Clotheslines stretched out from a balcony, dangling sheets, towels and aprons. Men in the audience wore caps like Tevye's. A woman in the third row wore a rustic dress and a babushka, looking every bit the 19th-century peasant — except for the purple down vest that guarded her against this chilly North Bay evening.
Roekard organizes events like the "Tevye Hora Picture Show" to draw Marin residents into Kol Shofar and strengthen the ties Kol Shofar congregants have to each other.
The programs are funded by the Koret Synagogue Initiative — an experiment aimed at bolstering synagogue life in the Bay Area. Four local synagogues received funding from the Koret Foundation for the pilot project. Each has used the funding differently.
Previous Koret programs at Kol Shofar were a bit more conventional than "Tevye Horah," and Roekard was somewhat apprehensive.
"It may take a little while for people to warm up," she said, as audience members began filling the seats.
But it didn't. As soon as the first strains of music welled up before the opening dialogue, people started whistling along. They screamed "Tradition!"along with Tevye.
"You may ask, `How did this tradition get started?'" Tevye intoned, at which point an audience member immediately complied, shouting, "How did this tradition get started?"
The crowd of some 70 moviegoers recited the best-known lines of dialogue along with the characters onscreen. They hissed the Russians, and yelled "It's Starsky!" when actor Paul Michael Glaser, co-star of the '70s TV program "Starsky and Hutch," appeared portraying the radical student who joins Tevye's household.
When Tevye onscreen sang, "If I Were a Rich Man," not one but two Tevyes in peasant attire leaped up from the audience to join him. They danced and gesticulated on two ladders that Roekard had arranged onstage for precisely that purpose.
But "Fiddler On the Roof" is hardly a nonstop funfest. The movie is three hours long, and the second half turns so tragic that Roekard didn't plan any activities to accompany it. The crowd thinned considerably after the intermission as parents with young children headed home. A few stragglers went to sleep on the floor. By the end of the film, the audience was stirring itself only to sing every so often — and to continue hissing the Russians.
Roekard called the event an incredible success.
"People instantly participated," she said. "They just jumped in left and right. No one was shy."
"I think we should make this into a regular, ongoing thing," congregant Susan Schrager suggested at the end of the evening.
Roekard noted that for all its frivolity, the event taught viewers about Jewish history. During the screening, she overheard a small boy asking his parents why, during the wedding scene, soldiers rushed in and ruined the party. The boy's parents ended up explaining what a pogrom was.
Roekard was thrilled that the event was inspiring "conversations that wouldn't normally take place," one of her aims in setting up the event.
Other Koret Synagogue Initiative programs at Kol Shofar have included a singles group and a forum for mental health professionals who belong to Kol Shofar to discuss ways to help synagogue members adjust to the synagogue's rapid growth.
Back at Chanukah, every member of Kol Shofar got the same present — a map pinpointing where each member of the synagogue lives.
The map was aimed at helping to build a sense of community, and by all accounts, that's what it did.
Says Roekard: "People were saying things like `I've been in class with this person for years and I didn't know they lived in my neighborhood.'"